April 22, 2009

“Give me money - that’s what I want”

I’ve noted before that I’ve received a number of e-mails in response to my two previous posts about the proposed change in the church canons of the term “missionary” to “mission partner.” A common theme in those e-mails goes something like this - “I don’t care what we’re called so long as they don’t cut off our funding.”

That’s a legitimate concern. The Episcopal Church - based on the news reports I read - is facing a financial picture that could be described as bleak. General Convention this summer will no doubt be asked to approve a budget that has substantially less revenue than anyone would like.

But already the mission program has felt the impact of budget cutbacks. The Church Center has apparently already made the decision to stop sending new non-YASC missionaries. There haven’t been any regional retreats for missionaries in several years. There’s ongoing discussion about how to fund a pension for lay missionaries.

So again, concerns about funding are legitimate and deserve to be treated seriously.

However, what I reject is the idea that the quest for more funding is divorced somehow from how missionaries talk about themselves. Indeed, thinking about funding without thinking about how we talk about ourselves amounts to putting the cart before the horse. The former is a fruit of the latter.

I say this based on my own experience as a missionary. I almost decided not to join YASC because I was worried about raising the necessary $10,000. I’m glad I overcame that hesitation because raising the money proved to be far easier than I ever imagined. I sat down, thought about why I wanted to be a missionary, how to communicate that idea in the best way, and then wrote letter after letter telling different versions of the same story: I wanted to be a missionary to experience the Gospel overseas, learn from my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, and attempt to share my gifts in a new setting.

When I opted to return for a second year, it was much the same. I sat down and thought about what I had experienced and learned and how best to relate that. In my travels last September to different churches, I told a series of similar stories that communicated, I hoped, the same message: mission is about reconciliation but before reconciliation comes a process of reification and relationship-building. I again had less trouble than I imagined raising money for my personal support and, this time, for African Medical Mission.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because Jenny is in the U.S. right now raising money for AMM. I don’t think she’ll mind if I say that before she left she was nervous about the trip. I tried to reassure her with one piece of advice: just tell the truth. What you do every day, even if it is commonplace to you, is important and profound and unusual to the people you’ll meet. Together, we reflected on the cast of characters we encounter and identified a couple individuals whose stories best exemplify the work of AMM. I have no doubt that she is doing superbly on this trip.

As I see it, the thought process goes like this. We figure out who we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it and then we figure out how to communicate that in the best possible way. Funding will be one fruit that flows from this process. And, as I’ve noted, language is a first-order commitment for me; our descriptions shape our reality. So by using the phrase “mission partner” - an anodyne, legalistic, and constricting phrase, lacking in any euphony - we rob ourselves of some of that important self-definition and hinder our ability to communicate and thus secure funding.

If missionaries did have more funding, I would dearly love to see retreats reinstated. I think many missionaries know deeply and intrinsically who they are, what they do, and why they do it. I know Jenny does. But fewer missionaries can communicate those deep truths as well as they need to be. In my relatively brief time here, I’ve noted how the unusual and outrageous quickly becomes commonplace and it becomes difficult to find new ways to tell what is essentially the same story. Or you conclude that the story isn’t worth telling anymore, even though it clearly is. If that’s happened to me in two years, imagine what it must be like for a missionary who has been overseas for decades. I think retreats would be a great forum to help missionaries reflect on their experience and encourage them to share it in new ways.

I’ve been told many times what a “great” missionary I am and how valuable my blog is. Thanks. But I’ve been fortunate to meet and see “in action” a half dozen or so Episcopal missionaries around Africa. Their experiences are all different than mine but no less fascinating, important, or valuable. If all of us could tell our stories in the way they deserve to be told, I’m convinced I’d be receiving fewer e-mails noting our lack of funding.